Second-round pick Mitchell Robinson has been thrust into the starting lineup, but his problem with rebounding has cost the Knicks a greater number of possessions.
The Knicks’ rookie center, Mitchell Robinson, was always going to have his ups and downs this year. While he’s been mostly effective on the court—holding his own against elite competition in three games as a starter, staying out of foul trouble, and using his length as a disruptive defensive presence—he’s struggled with defensive rebounding. Robinson is averaging only three defensive rebounds per 36 minutes (via Basketball-Reference).
As Mike Vorkunov of The Athletic points out here, filtered for players his size who are getting rotation minutes this season, Robinson’s been comparatively ineffective at closing out defensive possessions with a rebound.
Mitchell Robinson has done a few things well so far as a rookie but he hasn't been as effective as a rebounder. He ranks 68th in reb/36 min this season of 77 players 6-10 & taller and playing 12+ mpg, and 65th in Reb%. NYK grabbing 4.9% fewer def reb when he's on court vs. off.
— Mike Vorkunov (@MikeVorkunov) November 1, 2018
Digging into the numbers, however, there are a couple of mitigating factors that should temper concerns over Robinson’s long-term individual rebounding ability.
It’s worth noting that this area of Robinson’s development is particularly important when projecting his potential fit next to Kristaps Porzingis, who has also struggled with his defensive rebounding. Whoever plays in the frontcourt next to KP will ideally have to be strong on the defensive glass.
The obvious factor deflating Robinson’s numbers so far is that he’s playing next to two of the league’s best rebounders in Noah Vonleh and Enes Kanter. According to NBA Stats, Robinson has a defensive rebounding percentage of 8.5 percent, Vonleh is at 28 percent, and Kanter is at 30 percent. Both Vonleh and Kanter are top-10 in the NBA in defensive rebounding percentage for players who have played more than 20 minutes.
Playing with these two monsters affects Robinson’s numbers. Out of his 85 minutes played so far this season, he’s logged the majority (56 minutes) with Vonleh, wherein the team had a 83.7 percent defensive rebounding percentage (DREB%). Mitch also played 10 minutes with Kanter, wherein the team had a 64 percent DREB%. Kanter and Vonleh have played 21 minutes together, with a 70 percent DREB%.
In short, Robinson has almost exclusively played next to one of the best defensive rebounders in the NBA so far this season. Interestingly, the starting lineup over the last three games, featuring Robinson, has a DREB% of 82 percent in 50 minutes of action, while the starting lineup of the first five games, featuring Lance Thomas and Kanter in the frontcourt, had a DREB% of 79 percent in 65 minutes.
Both of these starting groups would lead the league in DREB%— the Dallas Mavericks are tops at 78.2 percent—with the Knicks sitting seventh at 74.7 percent. The Knicks are an exceptional defensive rebounding team, with and without Robinson in the lineup. Though it’s only been three games, the current starting tandem of Vonleh and Robinson is the best frontcourt pairing the Knicks have both from a defensive rebounding standpoint and a defensive standpoint.
MITCH ROB!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! pic.twitter.com/BRiugIV9g1
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) October 30, 2018
Robinson, despite the context of playing alongside Kanter and Vonleh, still has a freakishly low defensive rebounding rate. Is he just a bad rebounder in a big body? I don’t think so. His offensive rebounding rate—13 percent—is higher than both Kanter’s 12 percent and Vonleh’s 11 percent.
There’s something specific about the defensive end that stifles Robinson’s rebounding, and it’s jumped off the screen since watching him in Summer League. He tries to block everything around the rim. This is par for the course with rookies, who have spent their basketball lives—especially if, like Robinson, they skip college—equating good defense with lots of blocks.
Having said this, he’s tidying up this tendency quickly for a rookie. Since entering the starting lineup, Robinson looks a lot more disciplined than he did in his first rotation minutes of the season against the Boston Celtics. David Fizdale has remarked on the improvements he’s made in his defensive positioning, after spending time with Rasheed Wallace, where the NBA veteran focused on getting Robinson to talk more on defense.
Given the context of the two rebounding monsters he’s playing with, and the fact that he’s a rookie learning the nuances of boxing out NBA behemoths, resisting a lifelong urge to block everything in sight will be a process. We don’t need to panic about Robinson’s defensive rebounding numbers relative to his size and position just yet.
My beloved Mitch ??? pic.twitter.com/IAsoeN7rSx
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) October 27, 2018
He can rebound, and his offensive numbers back that up. He has the same offensive rebounding percentage as a rookie (13 percent) as tonight’s matchup, DeAndre Jordan of the Mavericks, has had for his entire career. Of course, high offensive rebounding rates don’t always translate to the other end of the floor, but there’s enough mitigating context to give Robinson, 85 minutes into his NBA career, the benefit of the doubt.
As long as the Knicks continue to defensive rebound at an elite level as a team, Fizdale will no doubt be happy. Tonight’s Friday Night Knicks opponent, the Mavs, are the 10th best offensive rebounding team in the league, so Robinson and the rest of the neophyte Knicks will have to be on their game on the boards.